The Magic of Leading with Purpose

A HOW Conversation about Leadership with Lisa Sherman
and Dov Seidman

We are in a time where unprecedented forces are reshaping our world faster than we can adapt our institutions, leadership, and even ourselves. In recent years, we have faced challenges on all sides—a global pandemic causing suffering, death, and economic destabilization; a reimagined workplace; technological advances that challenge human dignity and autonomy; a war in Ukraine and Israel that has shaken international alliances; and the rise of autocratic leaders across the globe. Beneath it all is a hunger to rediscover how we can come together as a human community with a moral framework to address these challenges. In such times, we look to the leaders who are demonstrating how to come together in common cause to pursue a better future that ensures more stable societies.
The conversation took place during HOW Conversations, The HOW Institute’s video series dedicated to highlighting moral leadership, principled decision-making, and values-based behavior in action, Dov Seidman discussed these issues with someone who is bringing together business leaders to tackle some of the most pressing issues we face today: Lisa Sherman the CEO and President of the Ad Council.
The discussion has been lightly edited for clarity. To see the complete session, visit The HOW Institute’s YouTube channel
Dov Seidman:
How do you decide what issues to engage with? And what’s your playbook for bringing people together around thorny issues so that we can create more shared truth in the world?
Lisa Sherman:
The Ad Council was founded on the promise and the potential of the communications industry’s capacity to do good. Our industry is made up of extraordinarily talented people who are expert communicators, and who work on behalf of clients and brands to generate ideas that get people “to do things”. The Ad Council’s mission, our purpose, is to ensure that people can live happier, healthier, and safer lives through public education. That’s what we do. One of our priorities right now is addressing mental health, where, the data is quite sobering. Upwards of 50-60% of people are struggling with anxiety and depression. And the rates of suicide, especially among young people are higher than we’ve ever seen before.
DS:
We’ve talked about how so many companies’ ad campaigns proclaim their humanity: there’s the “human energy company” and the “human network,” yet another company says they have the “human element.” And some companies say their products can help us ”‘be more human” or even “bank more human.” But we know that it’s one thing to advertise your humanity, and it’s another thing to translate that proclamation into a human ethos of how we operate, how we relate to people and society. If you were a CEO of an organization that told the world that you’re human, what steps would you take to make your institution more human?
LS:
For me, it always goes back to: What is an organizations reason for being? What is our why?  What are our values? How do we go about showing those values? And so, for us, it’s always about looking at: who are our stakeholders, what is important to them, and how do we continue to foster a society where everyone can thrive. I think grounding everything in purpose and values should hold true for every business enterprise.
DS:
What is the playbook that you seem to think is effective for a CEO or a business leader navigating a world in which you no longer get to say, “Hey, I just run a business.”
LS:
As a leader, I think finding the intersection between your company’s purpose and an individual’s purpose is where the magic happens. People want companies to stand for something more than just focusing on returns for their shareholders. For the longest time we lived in a world where that wasn’t the case. Today, the talent we work with has much more influence than I could have ever imagined 30 years ago. Every stakeholder (employees, suppliers, partners, communities we serve, and shareholders,  are critical to success. I don’t think any company can be as effective as they want to be if they don’t consider all of these critical constituencies .
DS:
You’ve said that life and the path ahead is not linear, it’s curvilinear, that life doesn’t move in a straight line. That adage has animated your own personal journey of leadership. Tell us about leading when you’re so conscious that there isn’t a straight line in terms of becoming a better leader. How has your non-straight-line career informed your leadership in a way that others can emulate?
LS:
I think the non-linear aspects of my career—some were intentional zigs, and others were unintentional zags—taught me so much about handling challenging times.  My perspective is that we must try new things, and it’s not all going to work. And that’s okay because we can learn so much more when things don’t work. I also know that to lead, especially in times of challenge and change, is very difficult. If you don’t have the trust of the team, then the things you need to do will be more difficult. I like to say that its important to lead at the speed of trust. I’m an impatient person. I like to move quickly, but I also learned the hard way that if I didn’t build the trust amongst the people that I was working with, we might have some short-term wins very quickly, but they would never stick.
DS:
You’ve said very publicly that you were in a corporate closet for 17 years and that when you came out of that closet, you were not only happier, you were more creative and more productive. And since then, you’ve also made it a mission to create workplaces where people can bring their full authentic selves to work. How has coming out changed your leadership?
LS:
When I finally had the courage to come out of the corporate closet, I thought that the benefit would be that I wasn’t hiding and holding onto a secret any longer. What I didn’t fully understand was how much energy it took to hide. I was freed up by not expending so much emotional energy making up stories. I called it pronoun puppetry. I would substitute “him, he” for “her” and “she” when people would ask what I did during the weekends. I didn’t have to think about any of that anymore, I exhaled for the first time in decades. I was able to think more clearly, be more creative . It changed the course of my life in so many ways. Given that experience, I do whatever I can to create an environment where people feel like they can step out whatever closet they are in and into the light.
DS:
Can you give advice to the next generation of people who are consciously and intentionally on a leadership journey?
LS:
I recommend asking yourself some key questions to find your personal purpose. What are the things you really care about? What are the values that you live by?  I would also encourage folks to  use their voice effectively, stay curious, have a belief in something, and then act on it.
DS:
What inspires hope in you?
LS:
I am very inspired by the young people that I work with every day because they bring a level of courage and authenticity that I did not have when I was just starting out and for many years into my career. That gives me a lot of hope.  I love the spirit,  the energy,  and the passion that they bring. They are forcing us to be better leaders.